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Why are there different Versions of the Bible?

A minister was shocked when he overheard an elderly member of his congregation, say, "If God knew what they'd done to the King James Bible, he'd be turning in his grave!" (Note: there are at least 4 heresies in that last sentence).

On my shelves, I have 15 English versions of the Bible. Why are there so many different versions? Why isn't there one standard version that all English-speaking Bible-believing Christians can buy and use? Why isn't the King James Version (the Authorised Version) the standard version? Why do they keep printing new versions of the bible? Surely we've got enough already?

In this article I want to examine some of these questions:

  • Why are there so many different English versions?
  • Do we need any more English versions?

Consider this version of Jesus's birth in Matthew 2:1-2:

"When Jesus was borne in Bethleem a tourne of Jury, in the tyme of Kynge Herode. Beholde, there cam wyse men from the est to Jerusalem saynge: where is he that is borne kynge of the Jues? We have sene his starre in the est, and are come to worship hym."

This is Tyndale's English version with the original English spelling published in 1526. [If only I'd known at school, that my spelling was based on the 1526 version, I'm sure I would have done so much better in English!]

Now compare it with the following:

"When Jesus was born in the township of Bethlehem, in Judea-shire (when Herod was the kingpin) some eggheads from out east turned up in Jerusalem asking everyone: "Where's this new Prince of the Jews, this Promised One, who's just been born? We saw his star out east, and we've come to say, "G'day your Majesty"""

This is from "The Aussie Bible" published in 2003. Straight away we can see that English language usage changes over time and with location. This explains the need for modern up-to-date translations of the Bible which can be understood by contemporary people.

Broadly speaking there are two types of English Bible translations - a translation and a paraphrase.

What is a "translation"?

Strictly speaking all our English versions of the Bible are translations. The original manuscripts of the bible were written in Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament) and these have been translated into English. However, certain English Bible versions are known as translations e.g. New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Revised Standard Version (RSV) New King James Version (NKJV), King James (Authorised Version), English Standard Version (ESV) and the American Standard Version (ASV). These versions aim to provide a word-for-word translation of the original text.

What is a paraphrase?

These translations aim to capture the message and its meaning, rather than achieve word-by-word rendering. This is known as dynamic equivalence. Eugene Nida of the American Bible Society described the process in the following manner: "To translate is to try to stimulate in the new reader in the new language the same reaction to the text the original author wished to stimulate in his first and immediate readers."

Modern translations tend to be distinguished by the degree to which they take on board the principle of dynamic equivalence. "The Message", "The Good News Bible" and "The Aussie Bible" are at one end of the spectrum being very free and loose translations which sound exactly like the way people speak in certain parts of the world. The New International Version (NIV) is at the other end of the spectrum, being closer to a straight translation, although not a word-for-word one.

Compare the almost word for word translation of John 14:1 in the RSV, "Let not your hearts be troubled" with the same verse in the Good News Bible; "Do not be worried or upset". The RSV is understandable but somehow, its sounds rather odd. Few of us speak like this today. In contrast, the Good News Version is instantly comprehensible but knowing what the original phrase should say, you can see that something of the richness of the biblical language is missing.

Now compare the NIV version of the same verse. "Do not let your hearts be troubled". This is closer to the word-for-word translation of the RSV but it sound less stilted and something of the poetry has been retained.

Question: Are all Bibles the same?

Which Bible is the best?

Over my lifetime as a Christian, I have used the Good News Version (GNV) when I was a teenager and a new Christian. When I was older, I used the New International Version (NIV) - and this is the version I still use in my quiet time. When I prepare sermons I mainly use a combination of the English Standard Version (ESV), and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which are both straight translations. Which one is the best? The annoying answer is that none of them is. It all depends what you're using a particular version of the bible for.

I like a word-for-word translation for preparing sermons as I want to know what the text says without having a translator making a decision for me about what a text means in advance.

I sometimes like a very free translation like "The Message" or the "Contemporary English Version" to shake up my quiet Time and help me to re-appreciate familiar passages. I wouldn't recommend Bibles like these and the Good News Bible for regular use by the average reader or for detailed bible-studies. However, the Good News Bible is a good introduction to the Bible for a young reader, a young Christian or a person for whom English is a new language. For group study, it is essential to use a bible closer to the word-for-word end of the translation spectrum (e.g. the NIV) as opposed to the Good News.

Rev. Dr. Mark Duggan

Published in the Bramley Baptist Church Magazine, Sept-Oct 2007


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